America Needs a Moral Swashbuckler

June 6, 2011 § Leave a comment

I was reminded of the BBC version of Casanova (not like the sanitized, cute US film) recently, and began to think about the limits of behavior in our era. The real Casanova was a daring, sensual, fairly unscrupulous fellow, and would have been locked up in prison just as quickly in our age as in his. Some of the things he did were certainly amazing and even inspiring, such as his escape from Venice’s infamous prison, and his rather egalitarian treatment of many strangers.

On the other hand, he once seduced a young woman whom he later discovered to be his own daughter (her mother, also in bed with Casanova, told him of this after the fact). This revelation did not appear to phase him, as he proceeded to father a child with her as well.

Another celebrated personage of the 18th century in this respect was the Marquis De Sade. I have read a number of his stories, and they often descend into depths of cruelty and neurosis which are difficult to understand, let alone justify. Anyone who has seen Quills and compared it with his writings can see how the Hollywood version was very much ‘tidied up‘. De Sade certainly exceeds any humanistic or religious standards in that he speaks of harming others for one’s own pleasure.

One aspect of his stories which I do have some appreciation for, however, is that he was unafraid to expose the hypocrisy of the authorities in his day. A great number of his tales feature priests, nuns, and others of the cloth engaging quite enthusiastically in sexual acts. Judging from other contemporary accounts, this was not by any means an exaggeration. As Casanova also noted in his escapades, the hallowed halls of monasteries and nunneries concealed a great upwelling of sexual expression. Note the example of televangelist Haggard, who was found to be conducting a secret liaison with a male prostitute. With magical powers of vision, what other hypocrisies might we uncover in government, churches, and other institutions? I’m sure Dr.Kinsey would not be surprised by the results, and neither should we.

As someone once said, the Moral Majority is neither moral, nor a majority.

So I do feel a genuine admiration for what both of these men accomplished with their writings, primarily because I see them as great iconoclasts. They did not create the reality of what was occurring in society- they simply participated and recorded their observations. The schizophrenia and repression that the Puritans bequeathed to America makes Casanova in particular all the more attractive as a symbol of defiance to moral orthodoxy. And orthodoxy is exactly what I think needs to be scrutinized and judged- there are certain societal limits which are useful to have, in order that people are not harmed by others.

Yet when laws and taboos go beyond that and dictate how one can feel and express pleasure or love, that is where an iconoclast is needed to put things into perspective.

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